The Southeastern Conference slate is halfway done for Missouri men's basketball.
The Tigers have not met their own expectations in 2020, with a 2-7 mark in league action dropping their overall record to 10-12.
A year ago, Missouri also had only two wins in its first nine conference games, encountering similar injury problems and high points that couldn’t be capitalized on.
Missouri’s 68-51 road loss to Texas A&M on Tuesday night was the latest setback for a program trying to climb back into the conversation.
Arkansas, LSU and Auburn — the Tigers’ next three opponents — all are projected to be NCAA Tournament teams by ESPN, presenting a great challenge and opportunity.
Here are five takeaways on where things stand with nine regular-season games left for Missouri:
1. Head coach Cuonzo Martin is openly questioning Missouri’s toughness.
Through most of the Tigers' adverse times this season, there has been no public questioning from the helm. That changed Tuesday. Martin took a different tone after the loss to Texas A&M while he was speaking with Mike Kelly and Chris Gervino on KTGR. “We probably spend 10,000 hours on the season on just simple jump-stops," Martin said. "... Like I said to our guys, if this is really pressure, then you’re always going to struggle. It should just be basketball. If these are pressure situations, then this stage might not be for you." This sounds like he's issuing a challenge. Now we'll see how the Tigers respond against Arkansas on Saturday afternoon.
2. Injuries are far from the Tigers' biggest problem this past month.
While the seven SEC losses could be blamed on the holes left by Jeremiah Tilmon, who has played a total of 20 minutes in two conference games, and Mark Smith, who hasn’t played since the first half of the win against Georgia, Missouri possesses depth to at least patch those holes. Reed Nikko did an admirable job taking over the starting center role, while Xavier Pinson is a capable starter at guard. The Tigers' play on the road, where they’ve lost six in a row, has been inconsistent at best. Their overall offensive play has been a huge part of their KenPom ranking dropping 67 spots over the past month, from 50th before the Kentucky loss to 117th on Wednesday. Being more comfortable away from Columbia and gaining confidence offensively would only help moving forward.
3. Missouri must go all-in with its focus on the SEC Tournament.
An at-large NCAA Tournament berth is out the window. Therefore, the only thing left is the automatic bid, available at the SEC Tournament in Nashville in mid-March. The best way for the Tigers to improve their chances at getting that spot, as poor as the odds may be, is to win. Simple enough, but instead of winning five games in five days, Missouri could position itself to only have to win four over four days. The Tigers would avoid the first round of the league bracket by climbing out of the bottom four in the standings. At this point, that’s a strategy to get the maximum value out of the rest of this season.
4. Javon Pickett may be Missouri’s most important player going forward.
Missouri is 6-0 when Pickett reaches double figures. That's enough of a trend to know it's not a fluke. On Tuesday at Texas A&M, Pickett was held to seven points in just 12 minutes on the court as he battled foul trouble. Without him, the Tigers fell behind by double digits and never recovered. Pickett appears to have his permanent starting role back after spending most of Missouri’s nonconference slate coming off the bench, and he’ll have a big say in how the rest of the Tigers' season goes.
5. For a team with potential, it's disappointing to not defy predictions.
While most of the conference is trending up this season — minus Mississippi and Vanderbilt, the two teams below the Tigers in the current standings — the Tigers are possibly the lone team that’s been stagnant overall. There have been some positives for Missouri this season, including its blowout win over Florida nearly a month ago. But so far, Missouri has been unable to make a case that it's much better than the one picked 13th in the SEC preseason poll.